The Impact of a Law’s Name: Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) law to “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) and now “Every Student Succeeds” (ESSA)

  • by Dr. Tim Mullen - Mon, 10/16/2017 - 18:09

The U.S. Constitution begins with a preamble that explicitly states that one of the primary goals of the United States is to “promote the general welfare.” It is easy for me to see public education as 1) a mechanism for promoting the welfare of all individuals and 2) an important part of supporting the free and informed “pursuit of happiness” described in the Declaration of Independence. To address this fundamental goal of the Constitution the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) came as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” legislation passed in 1965 to provide equal access of all citizens to quality public education. It was in 2001 (signed PL 107-110 January 8, 2002) that it was renamed the “No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).” The ESEA/NCLB of 2001 required that it be renewed in six years but it was not reauthorized until 2015. It is now titled Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015.

Did we meet the goals established by the original ESEA? No. Equal Access and every student succeeding are still issues. And, in my opinion, one of the main reasons education has become the target of so much criticism by so many factions is because of the expectations that came from the name and ultimate interpretation/implementation of the newly names “No Child Left Behind Act.”

The new name implied that all children would be “successful” by the end of 2014, i.e., not “left behind.” The name was political move intended to get attention and get votes. The problem was there was never a discussion and agreed upon definition of what it meant that “no child would be left behind. Success was never clearly defined in the law. Success is in the eyes of the beholder, parent, politician, teacher, and/or business leader.  Since the definition is so complex, and therefore impossible to measure, standardized testing became the tool used. OVERSIMPLIFYING a complex goal setup public education and teachers for a ‘no win’ scenario.

I can only imagine the reaction by any other profession if Congress passed legislation and called it by a similar title:

  • Doctors:                      “No Patient Dies” 
  • Dentists:                     “No More Cavities”
  • Lawyers:                     “No Party Loses”
  • Plumbers:                   “No More Leaks”
  • Auto mechanics:        “No More Breakdowns”  
  • Sales:                         “No Sales Lost”
  • Corporate America:    “No Company Too Big to Fail”
  • Wall Street:                 “No One Loses Money”

The basic premise (promise) is inappropriate. No other profession would be told they could be not failures, deaths, and/or money lost. It is not realistic. It is unfair to the children because of what it caused. It caused a demand for measurement, then oversimplification of the definition of success (test scores), and ultimately created a negative atmosphere directed against public education and teachers when every child was not left behind. As a side note, I watched the pass scores decrease over the years to create the image that more children were passing. Political pressures and realities become over-bearing as one of the major goals of the NCLB was that “Every Child be successful” by 2014. In other words, no one can fail, no one can be left behind. No reason for not being successful would be accepted.

Where did it all the criticism and subsequent unrealistic demands start? In 1983, with a study called “A Nation at Risk,” published by the Reagan Administration. Everything else that has transpired since, from the initiatives of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to “No Child Left Behind,” and President Obama’s “Race to the Top” have been in knee-jerk reaction. Some now say the Federal government should not be involved in public education. The question, I think, is not whether the government should be involved, but how? In 1979, President Jimmy Carter split the Department of Education from the former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, creating the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services, and elevated the position of Secretary of Education to a cabinet level position. Its stated mission, according to the department itself, was/is:
“…to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access…”

EQUAL ACCESS to EXCELLENCE is the key to the original intent of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) and the creation of the Department of Education (1975). Every child deserves a quality education. There has been a shift in Washington with some of the thinking towards the role of the Federal government with regards to public education in America that resulted from all the backlash and public uproar toward NCLB. It is too soon to tell how ESSA will impact public education in America but I am concerned with the words “Every” and “Succeeds” in the title. I wish they had used ‘equal access’ and ‘excellence’ in the title. The next blog will address what America wants from public schools and what is the definition of success for public education.

By Tim Mullen, PhD

Teacher and author of “STOP BLAMING + START TALKING: Developing a Dialogue for Getting Public Education Back on Track” (